Why doomster stories are so popular: we want to believe America is doomed

Summary: Yesterday’s post examined widely believed reasons that America will fall, and debunked them. This post discusses why such doomster narratives have become so popular and widely believed. The answer explains much about Campaign 2016.

Independence Day at the White House

This is follow-up to follow-up to The big list of reasons why America will fall (with rebuttals). It examined “The US Position is Untenable” by Karsten Riise, an unusually comprehensive doomster rant. The rising US public debt will crush the US dollar! The US is not competitive! The US has a weak education system! The US middle class is dying! We can’t raise taxes on the rich! America’s poor at risk of starvation; they just need more education! America’s military grows weaker! The US economy is unsustainable!

A few of these are partially correct. Most are exaggerated, or describe global problems (hence not a cause of relative decline). Some are outright wrong. But all of these are popular complaints, as it the overall doomster narrative.

Yesterday’s post discussed the objective accuracy of these claims. Today’s looks at their subjective truth, asking why these — and the overall doomster narrative of national decline — are so popular. The answer explains the unexpected strength of the Trump and Sanders insurgencies (see their overlapping views).

The first subjective truth: life at home

Many Americans feel the national doomster narrative is true because they see it in their own communities and in their own lives. America is filled with ruined communities and families with broken hopes, despite the nation’s fantastic growth in wealth since 1971.

Watch the fruits of America’s growing productivity shift to the top 6%,
like sands sliding down the curve to pile up at the bottom.
Roughly the bottom two-thirds of Americans are worse off.

The best graphical illustration of the economic trend we’ve seen is the animation below, showing the shift in “middle income” households from 1971 to 2015. It was created by the data team at the Financial Times, based on statistics from a December 2015 report by the Pew Research Center on America’s middle class. (The chart recently picked up a silver at the Malofiej awards of the Society for News Design’s European district.) {Source: LA Times.}

Pew Research graphic of changing income distribution

How can this be? It creates cognitive dissonance, tension in our minds between what we see and our beliefs about the world. Many reconcile this by seeing America as a bloom about to die or bubble about to pop. We see unshared prosperity as fake or temporary, deservedly ending.

People seek simple stories to explain how this happened. The role of the Right, agents of the 1%, is obvious: busting unions, shifting the tax burden from the rich to the middle class, and shredding the social safety net. The role of the Left in creating this failure is just as important, but less obvious. Analysts such as Thomas Frank have told this tale; so far few on the Left listen.

The results are insurgencies on the Right led by Trump (who won), and the Left by Sanders — who lost, but I suspect that was only round one (Why the Left will divorce Hillary and the new Democratic Party). People have begun to become aroused, a process that probably cannot stop until they are either crushed or the system changes. Somehow. Some way.

But until most people find a way to act upon their feelings of decline (personal, family, and community), they’ll take refuge in entertaining doomster narratives — whose “inevitability” relieves them of the responsibility for taking action as citizens.

The second subject truth: defeat abroad

Most Americans take great power in our military, lavishly funded and the most powerful in the world by most metrics. It’s a source of national pride. Discovery of our vulnerability on 9/11 shocked us. Our inability to defeat jihadists in the subsequent 15 years was a second shock. The result appears to have destabilized our minds.

Now our foreign wars run on autopilot, without thought or purpose. This mindless and perhaps endless war is too scary to contemplate, and so has been largely banished from the Campaign 2016 stage — leaving only an awareness that something is wrong, contributing to the appeal of doomster narratives.


Many Americans are unhappy for good reasons. Our time is defined by people’s search of explanations, for enemies to blame, and for easy solutions. Any chance for reforming America depends on us working together to find common perspectives that are rooted in reality and feasible solutions. But no matter what happens, the American-that-once-was has died and a New America lies ahead.

Listen to me and you shall hear, news hath not been this thousand year:
Since Herod, Caesar, and many more, you never heard the like before.
Holy days are despised, new fashions are devised.
Old Christmas is kicked out of Town.
Yet let’s be content, and the times lament, you see the world turned upside down.

— “The World Turned Upside Down”, an English ballad first published in 1640.

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5 thoughts on “Why doomster stories are so popular: we want to believe America is doomed”

  1. Congratulations, this is the most powerful post of the year. Keep up the good work.

    Minor nitpick: “But for until most” should probably be “But until most.”

    1. Pluto,

      (1) Thanks for catching the typo. Fixed! I’m searching for a job, and so writing these at late at night.

      (2) Unfortunately I fear whatever analytical clarity I’ve gained has been at the expense of losing “synch” with my fellow Americans. I can no longer catch their imaginations, so my material doesn’t spread virally like it used to.

      Part of this is that America has become more tribal during the time I’ve been writing, since 2003. A perspective that has no allegiance to a tribe (over truth) has little appear.

      Also, people want enemies — note the framing of Campaign 2016 by both parties is almost totally about foes. Pointing to the “man in the mirror”, speaking about responsibility, citizenship, and tactics. These are like selling castor-oil flavored Popsicles.

      I’m frustrated. I’ve not a clue how to change course.

    2. Sorry to hear that you have to do the job hunt, but speaking from recent experience both as a job seeker and and a hiring manager, the market is surprisingly good for the job hunter if they can find the right angle.

      Your faithful readers will gladly accept whatever time you can spare for this blog.

  2. While the attacks of 9/11 brought terrorism to the forefront of our recent national consciousness, that fight is much older than many remember. In the 1970’s, domestic terrorist attacks were almost weekly, if not daily fare. Jane Alpert, and Mother Right, the George Jackson Brigade, Symbionese Liberation Army, Fuerzas Armadas Liberacion Nacional (Puerto Rican, responsible for 82 bombings), Jewish Defense league (44 bombings in NY, LA, and Chicago), Black Panthers (24 bombings), La Guardia Airport bombing (unsolved), and 112 domestic hijacking of airliners, to name a few.

    This does not take into account our own government sanctioned terrorist activitiy in Vietnam in the form of the Phoenix Program, nor literally thousands of other international terrorist attacks around the globe during what many refer to as “The Golden Age of Terrorism”.

    Perhaps our angst here is due to the fact that for so long, our military has retained more of a Cold War mentality which has proven ineffective against insugencies for the last four decades or more, and bears heavy responsibility for our national financial woes. We spend more money on defense than all of the other developed nations combined, but no matter how heavily we wield our military hammer, the end result seems to be worse than it was before. It is a drain on our resources, our youth, and our national perception of ourselves.

    1. Tim,

      A “war on terrorism” is a war on a tactic that has been used since the dawn of time. The Romans were big-time terrorists, such as crucifying the 6,000 Sparticus rebels on the road from Rome to Capua. The KKK was a terrorist organization, as the campaign against American Indians was won using terrorism.

      We can restrain ourselves from using terrorism, but cannot defeat a method.

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